high stakes tests

Will Tying Teacher Raises To Test Results Improve Education in Florida?

merit pay

Teachers’ salaries will now be based, in part, on their students’ performance on state tests.

When my husband was studying for the CPA exams, he prepared for months.  He memorized laws and rules and exceptions to those rules.  He used flashcards, watched lectures and took simulated exams.  He answered thousands of sample test questions.

Preparing for exams is as much about tactic as it is about knowledge.  To conquer an exam, people learn to beat the test.  They learn strategies.  They take courses designed specifically to prepare them for these exams or they study on their own, for the tests.

For my husband, the hours of studying paid off.  He passed all four parts on his first attempt.  But, were these tests measuring what he learned in school?  Did it measure the knowledge that he gained during his undergraduate and graduate college career?  Are any of these professional exams (The Florida Bar Exam, Professional Engineering Exams, MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.) used to measure the effectiveness of a university or a professor?


Data-based analysis of teacher performance is here to stay. Florida won a $700 million federal Race To The Top grant to design a statewide evaluation system that includes student test results in teachers’ evaluations.

No.  However, we do use tests to determine the quality of our schools and, as of July 1st, also our teachers’ performance.  Senate Bill 1664 requires that at least 50 percent of a classroom teacher’s performance evaluation, and pay, be based on the growth or achievement of the students.

And I understand why.  It is important to gage what students know.  We need to measure what they have learned throughout the school year.  And teachers also need an objective way to measure whether a particular method or lesson is effective.  It is equally important for schools and school districts to have a quantitative way to measure their teachers’ performance.

There are plenty of concerns about the fairness of teacher merit pay and whether test scores alone truly reflect a teacher’s effectiveness.  However, it is also fair to say that the only way to measure if a student has learned something, is to test him.  This is why there has always been a test.  And, more often than not, our test results determine a large portion of our future.  Passing a midterm and final in college was essential to passing a course.  Earning the right SAT score was crucial to get into college.  Passing those professional exams is the only way for doctors, lawyers, engineers and CPAs to obtain licensure.

However, since the introduction of No Child Left Behind we have entered an era of constant testing.  We’ve evolved from the High School Competency Test (HSCT) to the FCAT to the FCAT 2.0 to the End of Course Exams, the PERT and soon the PARCC, and so many other letters and abbreviations that I’ve left off of this list.

There are baseline exams, Fall Exams, Winter Exams, Interim Assessments, and on and on and on.  If your child attends a public high school in Miami-Dade County, he or she was probably testing from April through the end of the school year, especially if they were also enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.

Kids today are testing all the time.  And teachers are forced to adapt to that environment.  As much as teachers resist “teaching to the test,” I wonder how long they can continue to.  If a school’s success and a teacher’s efficacy is measured and determined by how her students perform on those tests, how long before the emphasis becomes beating that test?

The argument is not far-fetched.  For all of the school reforms that public education has undergone over the last ten years, for all the data and statistical analysis, high school students are not any better today than they were forty years ago.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics review, 17-year-olds’ average math and reading scores have not improved.  The tests have not changed at all in 40 years.  But, unlike the tests used to determine school grades and teacher effectiveness, “Nobody teaches to the NAEP exam,” said Kati Haycock president of the Education Trust, “which is why it’s such a useful measure to what our kids can actually do.”

And while our students are, according to the FCAT, constantly improving, the average SAT score for the high school class of 2012 dropped, again.  The reading and writing scores were the lowest since the company began releasing the data in 1972, which is part of what fuels the movement towards the common core and college readiness.  But those movements also include more tests.

Students deserve the best possible opportunities.  They need to be prepared to face the world, to enter college and/or the work force.  They deserve good schools and effective teachers to help them get there.  That requires local school districts and legislatures to figure out ways to ensure that tax dollars are doing just that.  That all requires tests.

I just hope that as we develop these tests and exams and figure out a way to use statistical analysis to interpret all of that data, I hope that we do not lose sight of the importance of a well-rounded education.  I hope that we don’t sacrifice creativity and class discussion and critical thinking.

When I was in high school, there was one test: the HSCT.  There were hundreds of electives.  I took ceramics and creative writing and photography.  I learned about Sigmund Freud and how he influenced Salvador Dali’s art as well as Ernest Hemingway’s writing style.  I learned about existentialism and Kant’s moral imperatives and how those ideas manifested themselves in literature, government and architecture. The high school that I attended no longer offers those courses.  And although I do my best to incorporate art and news and history and philosophy in my daily lessons, I’m not sure how many other teachers do.  And I don’t know how many other teachers will.  Those things are not on the test.


Originally posted on WLRN in July, 2013: http://bit.ly/1novSWT



Why School Grades In Florida Are Full Of Controversy

An A was always the gold standard.  Every student knows that the better the grade, the greater the reward. Whether the reward is a gold star, a trophy or a scholarship, the way to earn that was always to get that A. A plus

It’s no different for schools.  Since 1999, schools have worked to measure student learning gains and to objectively measure teacher and school performance.  An A school brings recognition, prestige and financial gain.

But, measuring school accountability is more difficult than anyone thought it would be.  And, as recent legislative decisions show, may carry huge political consequences.

The Florida Board of Education voted to reinstate a “safety net” which will pad student test results and prevent any individual school’s grade from dropping more than one full letter. That move reduced the number of failing schools from 262 to 107.

In 2012, 53 schools received F grades.

The formula used to calculate school grades is complicated.  It measures students’ scores on standardized tests and their year-to-year learning gains.  Board members voted 4-3 in an emergency conference call with Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to reinstate the safety net.

It was a narrow victory.  Board member Kathleen Shanahan, former chief of staff to Jeb Bush who ushered in the school grading system, said that the system has become overcomplicated and is not “a statistically valid model anymore.”

“I don’t understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable,” said Sally Bradshaw, another former Bush chief of staff.

The frequent changes in school grading formulas confuse parents and community members and undermine the system’s credibility.

school grades - flCredibility which is in even greater danger as emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett may have adjusted the school grade formula that he helped establish in Indiana while he was in charge of schools there to benefit one school.

The emails show that he moved quickly to make changes to the school grading system to ensure that Christel House, a charter school run by Christel DeHaan – a major Republican donor, who also donated to Bennett’s campaign – would receive an A, instead of the C that it would have earned under the state’s original formula.

Bennett was quick to defend himself, saying that the adjustment “had nothing to do with politics.”

And it is also true that superintendents across the state of Florida asked Bennett and the Board of Education to reinstate the safety net for school grades, which still plummeted with a record number of F-rated schools, without taking into account high school grades, which won’t be released until later this year, because high schools grades are even more difficult to calculate because they include other variables, such as graduation rates and enrollment as well as success in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses.

School grades have gone down, despite the fact that students’ test scores have held steady and, in some instances, even improved, which only add to the confusion.  If student academic achievement is improving, many parents wonder why school grades are going down.

The answer is that Florida continues to raise the bar as it strives to better prepare students for college.  And, to complicate matters even more, the actual accountability formulas also continue becoming more and more complex. In the last 36 months alone, there have been over 36 changes.

And there are more changes on the horizon as Florida moves towards the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, born out of President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiatives.  Florida is one of the states that signed up to work and develop the new standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the standardized test set to replace the FCAT.

However, in recent weeks, more and more states have decided not to sign on to the PARCC.  And, Florida is on the fence.  Just last week Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent Bennett a letter urging the state to abandon the PARCC, as Indiana and several other states have.

They cite concerns including the amount of time students will test and the cost of administering and grading the exams, which replace paper-pencil bubble in the answer tests with much more stringent exams where students, as young as third grade, are asked to write essays analyzing and synthesizing information.  These tests cannot be graded by computer, also increasing their cost.

Although there are plenty of democrats as well as parent and teacher groups who oppose implementing new common core standards, most of the states who have decided to opt out of the PARCC are republican states with republican governors.

Whether Florida does decide to join the PARCC or work to develop another test, it is unlikely that the formulas used to calculate success – and the teacher merit pay and school funding that depend on that success – will become any more straightforward or any less political.


Posted on WLRN, July 2013: http://bit.ly/1oXyBcL